13 Sep 2010

Unions hold full fire on cuts agenda

There is only one aim for the Union movement here in Manchester. Can they turn the government’s austerity drive from an issue of self interest into an issue of nationwide social justice?

Clearly it is undoubtedly the former, as it is directly affecting the job and pay prospects of a base of union members that is predominantly and increasingly concentrated in the public sector.

But it is far from clear that the general public are convinced so far that, as the unions believe, that George Osborne’s cuts are a choice rather than a necessity.

It is for that reasonĀ I think that the Union movement is today pulling its punches. Despite the headlines about civil disobedience and general strikes, the Union movement is holding its full fire on public sector cuts agenda.

Yes there was lots of rhetoric from the rank and file and from the fringes on civil disobedience, social unrest and the like, but the reality is that the unions are playing the long game.

Unlike much of Europe there will be no General Strike against once in a lifetime transformative public spending cuts.

The unions feel they are going to build, town by town, a bottom-up counter coalition of public sector workers and users. They feel they can get middle Britain onside when its libraries or sure start centres or care services are chopped.

Practically too, the legacy of Mrs Thatcher’s anti-union laws (still very much with us after 13 years of Labour government) means it is very difficult to go on strike for political reasons, or out of solidarity with another set of striking workers.

Lastly, do not underestimate the meticulous planning of the Conservatives in opposition. They cannily arranged for the Shadow Cabinet to meet most of the key union barons. They do talk.

A consequence of that could well be that the Coalition is adamant that there will be no further anti-union legislation.

In return, for now, the unions are listening, far more than you might think. It is an uneasy ceasefire, and it could be broken by one issue. Public Sector pensions. More on that tomorrow.